Remembering Monty

IMG_2862(Originally published on Facebook, 9/10/2015)

Today would have been this young man’s 56th birthday. Randall Montgomery “Monty” Moak left us way too soon; in a couple of weeks, it will be 39 years since he crossed the bridge.

I remember how my big brother would pick on me and drive me crazy with his antics; I suppose I got on his nerves too. But I also remember how he would fight for me; a shy, scrawny kid could have no better bodyguard than Monty. I think about what he might have become, with his quick wit, gregarious nature and love of tinkering around with engines.

Monty’s loss changed us all in profound ways; it took years for me even to realize just how deeply it had changed me. It’s said that time heals all wounds, and in a way, that’s true; the sharp edges of the pain can be worn away by the years. Sometimes, though, the memories can come in a flood, triggered by some sight or smell.

In those moments, the years are suddenly erased, and, for a moment, I’m back at that crisp yet terrible autumn day in 1976. Other times, we’re kids, saying our prayers around the breakfast table, or going to the swimhole in that green Volkswagen, or listening to Bad Company on the way to school. There are a thousand pictures in the album of my memories of him, some becoming faded around the edges.

But while the pounding waves of time flail mercilessly against the memories, they crash ineffectively against the impervious tendrils of love and connection, forged in our shared experience of family. We may forget details as the years press on, but the heart never really forgets; the soul knows this life is just the rail platform we must cross before we board the train towards our true home.

Because I believe in the risen Christ, and I know you did too, my brother, I know we will see each other once again. But until that day, I’ll press on, missing you all the while.

(I wrote an extensive post some years ago about the day we lost Monty. See Darkest Day.)

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Darkest Day

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Monty about to leave for church

I had just sat down on the bleachers for another boring Physical Education period at Eva Harris Junior High School. Not being the “athletic type”, I was resigned to my fate as a bench warmer, along with those without significant basketball prowess. For a gawky 7th grader, P.E. was more of a torture session than anything, and one’s best hope was that you could sit quietly and escape notice while the basketball game went on down on the court. I was not alone, in that there were other bookish types who had to endure P.E. We all sat while we awaited our fate. Inevitably, someone would be chosen to make a fool of himself on the basketball court, much to the amusement of the assembled crowd. I never failed in this regard, as I was among the least coordinated out there. It was quite a humiliation.

It had been a tough time in general the last few weeks. During that September of 1976, I was just starting at a new middle school, my family having moved to a rural area from the larger environment of Jackson. The schools back in Jackson were at the time bigger and better, able to offer a lot more than the cash-strapped rural district in which I now found myself. For a 12-year-old, with everything changing anyway, it was quite an upheaval. Still. I had always considered myself an adapter, and on balance I was adapting pretty well. I had learned, for example, to move to the other side of the hall to avoid known bullies, and I had learned where they sold snacks at the back of the gym. I was pretty good at pretending I knew what was going on, when I was actually lost as a goose.

Imagine my glee when the PA system announced my name. “Billy Moak, report to the office.” I didn’t remember that I had a doctor’s appointment or anything else special that day, but regardless, I figured it was something good. I wasn’t generally one to get in trouble, so I wasn’t worried. (After all, I had a reprieve from P.E. that day!) So I went to the locker room to change out of my shorts and T-Shirt, and remember singing and gleefully tossing my rolled-up T-shirt in the air while I headed to the office.

When I opened the door to the school office, the secretary was standing at the desk, her face ashen and lined with concern. In the corner were my uncle Vernon and cousin Earl. Both also had strange looks on their faces, like they didn’t know what to say. “Honey,” said the secretary, “Your brother’s been in an accident.”

Uncle Vernon walked over to me and put his hands on my shoulders, looking at me in the face. “Billy,” he said, “Monty has been shot.” (Vernon’s life was to face an upheaval of its own just a few days later, as he lost an arm and a leg in a railroad accident.)

I just could not process the words I was hearing. I zoned out for a few seconds while my mind caught up. “Shot?” I asked? “What happened?” “We don’t know yet. But we need to take you home.” Strangely, all I could think of was my books and school supplies I had left back in the classroom. “I need to get my stuff,” I said. “Oh honey, don’t worry about that. I’ll get it and have it here for you when you come back.” “OK, I mumbled.” I knew he was gone; otherwise, they would have told me something.

Monty was a newly-minted 17-year-old and was the middle child in our family. He was a lively and energetic young man, who could bring a smile to almost any occasion. People just instinctively seemed to like him, drawn to him like moths to a flame. He drove a green ’72 VW Beetle, with aluminum wheels on the back and pinstripes he had proudly applied himself. He drove that bug all over creation, and it became synonymous with him. (You could hear his glass-pack muffler before you could see him.) Often, before we moved from Jackson, Monty would drop me off at school, and he would listen to loud music on the way. He played football, and burst upon the scene at Bogue Chitto High School as a football standout.

In some ways, Monty was the “glue” who held our family together. The oldest was Tommy, who was 18 at the time and a sophomore at Southern Miss. Monty and I were far enough apart in age that we really didn’t have a lot in common. But he was larger-than-life to me, anyway, gregarious where I was introverted; athletic where I was uncoordinated. He picked on me a lot, and we squabbled as brothers do.

I followed Uncle Vernon and Earl out the door, and across to Vernon’s truck, which was parked on the gravel parking lot in front of the school. I got in the front seat between them, and no one said a word as Earl drove the 16 miles or so back home. It was a strange thing. I looked out the window, on a beautiful late September morning. Strangely, people all seemed to be going about their normal lives. I wasn’t reacting the way I thought I would. No tears, no deep dread, no black grief. There were just my usual thoughts about school, but now there was something else to worry about.

I thought about my parents, and Tommy, who was at college in Hattiesburg. I thought about what I knew of death and funerals. I had been to relatives’ funerals, but they were all old and I wondered if things were different for somebody young. I thought about Monty, and how he would punch me in the arm and try to get me in trouble, but also how he had pleaded with me to go out for football, to the point of offering me $20 if I would go out for the team. I knew that, deep down, he cared about me. I did feel a twinge of sadness, but why wasn’t I breaking down in tears, like I had seen people do on TV?

We slowed down on the highway just south of Bogue Chitto, as Earl flagged down a vehicle coming north. It was a black hearse. He and Vernon got out and spoke to the driver, nodded and then got back in the truck. “DOA,” was all I could make out from their conversation. I knew that hearse was carrying my brother, but I didn’t say anything. I turned around and watched as it disappeared over the hill behind us, just in front of Ms. Dianne’s beauty shop, where my mom got her hair done.

We turned off the highway in front of Mt. Pleasant Baptist Church, and onto the country road where our house was. When we got to the house on that gravel road, I was amazed to see at least 20 cars. They were parked in the driveway, in the yard, and along the road. People were gathered in the front yard, and going in and out of the house. Knots of people were talking in hushed tones in the yard. As we stopped in front of the house, I saw my Dad. He had a distant look, as if he were shell-shocked. I got out of the truck hesitantly, and he saw me. He ran to me and embraced me with tearful eyes. “Monty’s gone,” he said, as he hugged me tighter than I ever remember him hugging me. We hugged for a few more seconds, and as he released me, I felt secure. “I love you, I love you,” he told me. Having that contact with my Dad (always a hero to me to this day), reassured me. I know now that he must have been dealing with indescribable pain and shock.

“Mom needs you,” he said to me. “She’s in the house.” So I wended my way in, through the maze of people there on the front porch. Hands touched my shoulders and head as I went through, each trying to provide some comfort. In the house were even more people; the crowd parted like the Red Sea as I went in. My mother lay on the couch, holding a wet handkerchief. Kneeling in front of her was a young man in his late teens. His tear-stained face and bloody shirt bore witness that he had seen something awful. He struggled with his words as he tried to talk to my mother. It was Monty’s schoolmate, with whom he had skipped school earlier in the day. “I’m so sorry,” he said, weeping. My mother, ever the comforter, hugged him and told him it was OK. When she saw me, she extended her arms and I fell into them. The young man stood up, and Mom thanked him for coming and for telling her about what happened. She hugged me hard, and didn’t let go for a long time. “He’s gone!” she cried. Once again, I felt I should be crying, but I didn’t. All I could do was listen as she tried to tell me what had happened.

Details were sketchy, but it appeared that Monty and his friend had left school shortly after arriving that morning. The boy was going to sell Monty a gun for deer hunting, and they had supposedly left school to ride to the boy’s house so Monty could look at it. Sometime, while inspecting the gun, it went off and Monty was shot point-blank in the heart. He had died on the way to the hospital. The story seemed plausible at the time, but it never really was resolved in my mind.

After Mom regained her composure somewhat, she got up to talk to people around the house. I went into my room, the only place I could find quiet and be alone. I didn’t want to talk to anybody at the time; I was always a “loner” as a kid, and found that I didn’t mind being by myself. In fact, the summer before, some of my best times were when I would go out after breakfast to fish in our little pond behind the house. I would stay out all day. The previous summer had actually been full of activities other than my alone time; Monty would take me (no doubt, at my mother’s insistence) to various swim holes around the county. It was great fun; jumping in the cold water of a creek during the 100-degree days. Monty had a job at the time, working at a local Burger King; he had also developed a love of cars, and had recently bought a clunker which he was starting to restore in the back yard.

In my mind, I could suddenly envision a great darkness accompanying me. It was as if my “perfect” life had been marred by some disease, some stigma, that would forever be there. In the fullness of time, I have recognized that for what it was; the very legitimate realization that a big piece of me had been lost. I didn’t understand it back then; but being ripped apart from someone you love — who should be there — rips your soul. It marks you forever; some people can’t take it, while others find ways to cope. Eventually, the darkness recedes as the days pass, but it’s always there, just beyond the horizon, threatening and ominous like a thunderhead that you can feel coming by its cool wind.

Later that afternoon, Tommy pulled up in his mint green Pontiac Tempest. I remember his face; tears still ran down; it must have been an excruciating ride back home. Daddy embraced him as he got out of the car; they stood there a long time before going into the house to see Mom.

I really don’t remember much about the rest of that afternoon; however, I do remember going bowling and to a movie with a family who lived nearby who had a kid my age, named Tim. I also remember going to the Roses department store that evening; I don’t know for what. Anyway, we had almost made it back home, and I became nauseous in the car and asked Tim’s dad to pull over. I threw up on the side of the road. At the time, I attributed it to sucking on lemons before leaving for the movie; my insides were no doubt doing somersaults at the time.

That evening, I remember feeling self-conscious about what had happened. It wasn’t grief; rather, fear that people would think I was somehow different because of it. I felt this very strongly; as if everyone were looking at me. And for a shy, freckly 12-year-old boy, that is simply intolerable. I felt that our family had somehow become “marked” by Monty’s accident. I was also feeling a great deal of guilt over not being able to cry. Why couldn’t I whip up some tears? What was wrong with me? Was I a stone, unable to feel anything? And why did Monty have to go and do that? What was going through his mind? Didn’t he know what it would do to us? Didn’t he know people loved him? I knew in my head that he had no intention of doing anything to himself, and that it was a stupid accident.

That night, as people started to leave, there were tons of food in the house. The kitchen and dining room were full of dishes. A couple of dear friends had come to stay for a few days, to help us out. Also arriving were lots of relatives. That night, I had to give up my bed so my Uncle A.C. could use it. I don’t remember where I slept that night; but I do remember that I fell asleep very quickly, and I remember wondering why I slept so well.

The next morning, my parents were meeting with the people from the funeral home, making arrangements. It was really strange, having all these conversations. The remainder of that day was a blur, and I don’t have many other recollections from it. I do remember that I was able to talk to Tommy a little during that time. He acted as if he had been hit in the stomach. It wasn’t until later that I learned just what an upheaval this had caused to his life; he and Monty had fought when they last saw each other, and had left on bad terms. This must have crushed Tommy’s heart. It wasn’t until many years later that I understood it.

The next day was the visitation. What a parade of people came out! Friends and neighbors made a line out the door and down to the street, as people paid their respects to Mom and Dad. There was a lot of laughing, as people told stories about Monty and his exploits. I remember being a little angry at this; why should they be laughing, when this was so serious? But as I got to thinking about it, I began to smile too; Monty could crack up a room with the unique way he had of putting things; my Dad called him “The Bird” as a nickname. I remember that he would infuriate me by calling me “Brillo” instead of Billy. Why that made me so mad I can’t remember; but it was just big brother picking on little brother. I remember telling my Mom much later, “I would do anything if I could just hear him call me ‘Brillo’ again.”

My grandmothers came too; how strange it must be to lose a grandchild! My maternal grandmother (we called her Granny) had me take her by the arm and escort her to the open casket. She stood there, speaking under her breath in her Sunday finery, looking at him. She put her hand on his chest, as if to say, “So long. I’ll see you again.” (she did, a decade later.)

At some point, I just had to get away. So I sneaked out of the funeral home and went to sit in the green Beetle. It was comforting to me, just being around something that reminded me so much of Monty. I noticed in the back seat was a Bible. It was his, left in the car from Sunday church. I picked it up and opened it. It flipped open to where he had placed a little notecard with a question and answer from Sunday School. The question was, “What did Jesus say would happen to those who follow him?” “We will get a reward in Heaven,”  was the reply he had written. I took the Bible to my Mom, and showed her the card. She was overcome, knowing that it was a message, a confirmation of something she already knew. Monty was safe.

As we left the funeral home that night, after an exhausting visitation with hundreds of people, it was extremely foggy, and the ride home was dark and gloomy. Tommy drove and I wanted to ride with him. I remember him asking me about how I was doing, and I really didn’t know what to say. Truth is, I didn’t know how I was doing. I guess I was too young to really, really understand the import of what had happened; I still couldn’t cry. That was really, really bothering me.

I asked my Mom about it, and she told me, “People grieve in their own ways. The tears will come when you’re ready.” Looking back on that time, it is amazing that she had the strength she did. I guess it’s like any mother: somewhere, they can find strength they didn’t know they possessed, when their children or homes are threatened. She was then, and is still, a tower of strength to me. Mom was 43, and had just started teaching at the high school where Monty went. She saw him that morning, but was surprised by the news that he had sneaked off campus and been in an accident.

My Dad went about his business with what seemed to be stoicism; I can’t imagine what he must have been going through. Not only was he dealing with this situation; but he was also trying to make a go at a new job, in a new place. At 47, he should be settling down into a comfortable middle age; not starting over, establishing his home in a new community, dealing with losing a child.

Inside the little country church the next morning, there were too many people. They stood in rows out the door and into the churchyard. There were Monty’s football teammates, in their letter jackets; his schoolmates were there too, each dealing with the situation in their own way. Friends came from near and far, many of them from Jackson, where we had left just four months before. Again, the tears wouldn’t come! I was trying to force myself to cry. I knew what they were thinking: “why is he not crying?” Really, that is not what they were thinking at all; if anything. I was just a kid trying to deal with a situation I had never even considered before. I did think it was cool that Monty’s pallbearers were his football teammates, though.

The funeral was soon over, and I found myself standing at the graveside. There was the usual tent and pile of dirt, and I remember feeling badly about asking the usual questions in my head: What would happen to Monty’s body inside the casket? What would it look like in a few days? A few years? Is he watching us now? Does he see what’s going on? Is he with Jesus? (I knew that he was.) What’s it like in Heaven, anyway? Did Grandaddy and Pap pat him on the back and welcome him? If so, were they old or young up there? I was really curious about what was going to happen next.

I don’t remember what the preacher said (or what anybody said, for that matter.) As we left, I saw the county crew getting ready to lower the casket into the ground and fill the hole with dirt. We lay Monty next to his grandfather in the old Johnston Station cemetery. It’s a quiet place on a country road. My grandmother now lies there also, as do my mother’s two siblings, who died as babies. (My parents have already bought their own marker there, in preparation for the future.)

The next few days were largely a blur. There was lots of food, I remember; we had houseguests intermittently. Sometimes, I would dream about Monty. I dreamed he came back, wearing that gray suit. It had all been a mixup or something like that. I also sleepwalked. I would find myself on the couch, or having gotten dressed without realizing it. On going back to school, I was worried that somebody would see me and whisper to their friends. This was something that could make me get noticed, and I didn’t want to be noticed. Still, I didn’t cry. For some reason, I was scared to sleep in the room we had shared, so I slept on the floor next to my parents. I put all this away in my memory; I didn’t remember it until my Mom reminded me of it years later, but this went on for years, until one day, I decided that I was going back into the room.

That Christmas was a painful one for all of us. Tommy came home from school, and brought me two books I still have: The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes and Treasure Island. We were all trying to have a good Christmas, but the memory was just too fresh. We pulled out all the old Christmas albums and lit candles as we always did. I don’t know what triggered it, exactly, but as I sat there listening to the carols we used to share, my tears finally came. And when they came, I couldn’t control them. My Dad had been doing a good job of holding it all together, but it was just too much. We all cried together. In some way, it was a release for all of us.

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Monty with Brownie, in front of our house

Monty had a dog named Brownie. She was a little brown-and-white spaniel with whom he was very close. Brownie was a sweet little dog, and a couple of years later, we got a German shepherd-Collie mix named Sam. Sam and I were best friends; he had a sweet and gentle nature. Sam and Brownie were also quite close. Dad and I would often take the dogs to the swim hole in the back of the truck. One day, during a trip to the swim hole, we somehow lost Brownie on the way. We retraced our steps carefully, but never could find Brownie despite days of searching. Sam lay there for days in the front yard, staring off in the direction we had gone. He was grieving in his own way. I have thought often about what happened to her. Monty also loved his cat, Smokey. We actually had two cats, the other being named Calico, but Smokey was really Monty’s cat. He lived until the ripe old age of 17, when he died after encountering a hay baler.

I guess the car Monty had been working on was just too painful for Mom and Dad to see; someone came and got it a few days after the funeral. Monty’s death had touched the community, too. The football team retired his number, 74. Some time after the initial experience was over, several people had given memorials in Monty’s memory. So my Mom and Dad decided to give the money as a memorial scholarship in his honor. The Monty Moak Award was established, and gave some money to a student-athlete who demonstrated Christian character. And as a lasting memory, my parents established a memorial fund at the Mississippi Baptist Foundation. Every Christmas, the interest from that year is contributed to Monty’s church, where it supports the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering, and they encourage friends to give to this fund instead of giving them gifts on special occasions.

So what is the meaning of all this? I remember asking our preacher why did this have to happen? Did God make Monty die? Did he want us to suffer? As a Christian, I knew it couldn’t be so. But I had to ask the question anyway. The preachers all had the usual answers, and some answered better than others. The fact is, none of them – and really nobody but God – truly understands human suffering and how it relates to our lives here on Earth. I do know several things as a result of all this, though:

God lets. Just think about it a minute; what would the world be like if there were no pain, no loss, no tragedy? Most people would argue that it would be a better place. But would it? I mean, that would be Heaven, right? (And I want to be there yesterday.) But I’m not there, and you’re not there. We live in a broken world, one in which we fight our sinful human natures every day. If we were to never experience anything but good things – being sinful beings – would we, (could we?) appreciate God and how big he is (and, by extension, how big of a deal it is that he cares about us at all?) If you say no, do you really believe that people would do anything but become demanding of more? People say, “Why would a loving God let things happen?” “How could he let a child die?” “How could he let a wonderful person like Monty die and be ripped from us?” We know that “His ways are not our ways.” He has a purpose which we can’t begin to fathom. But if we love him and trust him, we know that he has our best interests in mind – even when it doesn’t make sense to us. Could he have stopped the Tsunami in 2004, or Hurricane Katrina, or let me keep my old job? Sure! He controls Heaven and Earth! But for some reason which does not make sense to us, he chose not to. Who are we to dictate to God anyway? (Look up Job 40 to see what I mean.)

God loves. I know that God is not some big mean kid up there with a magnifying glass, trying to burn the ants. He is not in the business of causing pain; he is in the business of easing it. And by easing it, he shows his true nature is love. Through all of the pain and adjustments that we endured after losing a brother, a son, a grandson, a cousin, a friend, we have been reminded that the only way we can really get any comfort is from God; and because our hope is in God, we can take comfort.

God lives. We have photos, but those aren’t Monty. We have mementos, but those aren’t Monty. There is even a body in the ground, but it’s not Monty. What made him Monty is no longer bound by this earthly plane; it’s transcended to our ancestral home: Heaven. We will be there one day with him, if we have accepted the gift of Salvation.

You see, I know this because I know God is not dead; he’s not sleeping; and he’s not unaware. He lives! And for some unfathomable reason, he has loved this tiny, insignificant speck of a planet, orbiting an ordinary star on the fringes of an ordinary galaxy, in an otherwise-unremarkable group of galaxies. He loves us so much that he took a piece of Himself and gave it to us (it became one of us) so we could trample it and defile it with our sin and kill it! When Jesus died, he took our sin on his back, something so dreadful that even God himself could not look at his own son, this piece of Himself! His fury could have burned this planet to cinders in a flash. He could have caused all mankind to vaporize in pain. He could have judged us all then and there, letting us follow our sinful natures right down to Hell. But he didn’t. Instead, He chose to do something so gracious, so unbelievably strange, so … loving… that it defied sense and human logic: he pulled Jesus up out of the pit, dusted him off, and raised him from the dead. Like salt water leaving behind salt and impurities when it evaporates, he left the sin and death behind, rising pure and undistilled. And he offers the same to us!

So, one day, I will know the answers. I’ll be able to ask Monty what possessed him to skip school that terrible day. If I’m mad at all, I won’t be for long. I will go up and give him a big hug, and he will tousle my hair and say, “Hey, Brillo. About time you got here.” Alongside him will be Granddaddy, who has been a huge influence on my life despite the fact that I never met him. Also there will be Granny, who read the Bible to me and showed me her big world map with pins where the missionaries were serving, so she could pray for them. There will be Mam, young, whole and healed, with her big smile, and Pap, who took a stand for what he believed (and got thrown out of church for it.) The table will be set with all manner of good things. But it won’t be dark after supper, and we won’t be tired, because it never gets dark there and nobody gets tired. Everybody will stand as we greet our guest of honor, who will take his place at the head of the table. Jesus will thank the Father for the meal, and we will all eat together and laugh. After supper, we will walk around Heaven and enjoy this perfect place, where there won’t be any more death, nor fear, nor desperation, nor loneliness; just happiness and dreams fulfilled.

Time won’t matter anymore, and the “darkest day” will only be a memory; robbed of its darkness by our joyful reunion.

A Husband Remembers

It was a rainy Saturday morning in March, 1991 when my beautiful bride Lori walked down the aisle to me. It was the day of the big St. Paddy’s Day parade, but the church was full of friends and family. As Mrs. Jan Rodgers teased 10 majestic chimes from the great old pipe organ, the bridal party came down the aisle to take their places on the chancel.

The doors opened as the organ switched to the Bridal Chorus, and she emerged from the foyer. Her daddy held her arm tightly, and he let go for the last time before letting her approach the altar. She was resplendent in her white gown, and her face seemed to glow under the veil as she walked up to me. Standing there in my black tux, I didn’t notice my uncomfortable bowtie and tight shoes as I looked into her soft blue-gray eyes. She uttered not a word, but those eyes spoke volumes. They told me that she loved me, that she trusted me, and that this was right.
As we took our places in front of our pastor, Dr. Jim Futral, I felt a sense of completion, but also of anticipation. All of the planning, all of the expense, all of the details had led to this moment. But it wasn’t an ending; it was a beginning.

Now, 22 years later, I think of the events that we have experienced together. We’ve moved five times. We’ve had a half-dozen vehicles and as many jobs. Together, we’ve seen hundreds of movies, traveled thousands of miles and seen the sights. Every day, we still use our original Lenox Blue Brushstrokes dishes and Oneida silverware, given to us as wedding presents. Our original washer and dryer gave up the ghost a few years back, but we still use our original mixer.

Most significantly, we have brought into the world two beautiful babies. We have checked into the hospital in the middle of the night, visited the doctor countless numerous times and made 10 p.m. trips to Walgreens in search of poster paper for some “emergency” project. We’ve attended preschool plays and high school band performances, T-ball games and scout ceremonies. Those babies are rapidly now turning into fine young men of faith and conviction. They may not have the latest and coolest clothes and gear, but they have something far more valuable: a home full of love, where they will always be welcomed and accepted, and parents who tried to teach them who God is and how to know Him.

Lori and I were destined to be together. As kids, we lived just one block over from each other. She and her family lived on Kirkley Drive, along the big hill down which my friends and I used to ride our bikes. Although Lori and I were close to the same age, and in the same grade at school, we really didn’t know each other that well. Her brother Barry and I used to walk to Emma Green school together, and I knew he had a sister named Lori, but that was about it. In the sixth grade, we went to school together, but being in different homerooms, we didn’t interact much.

But over there in that house was a little pigtailed girl who would one day grow up to become my wife. And little did she know that, one day, a skinny little freckle-faced boy from Neering Trail would grow up and steal her heart.

I had a dream one night in 1989, just a few months before I finished graduate school in Hattiesburg. In the dream, I remember I met Barry’s sister Lori, all grown up. The next day, I started thinking about her. What had become of her? What kind of person did she turn out to be? Was she married? (Back then, there was no Google or Facebook, of course.) As Providence would have it, however, I got the chance to find out.

After graduation, I got a job working for the Red Cross in Jackson. I decided I would try different churches in the area, to see which one seemed like the best fit for me. My family had gone to Broadmoor briefly back in the 1970’s, and so I decided to go there. On my first Sunday in Jackson, January 1990, I went up front after the service to meet the Pastor. Dr. Jim Futral warmly shook my hand and said I should come back. I said I liked Broadmoor, and had decided on the spot to join. I told him I would be back next week to join, and he looked me in the eye and said, “Why wait? Come back tonight!” So I did. That Sunday evening, I went up front to join the church.

Of course, everybody made me welcome and there was a stream of people coming through. In the line was a pretty girl with long brown hair and deep blue-gray eyes. My own eyes got wide when she told me her name. “Lori Grantham,” she introduced herself. “I remember you!” I said, and with a flash of recognition, she remembered me too. After church that night, we talked for a while. It was the beginning of a beautiful thing. Shyly, I asked her out, and she kept saying she couldn’t go. I thought she was putting me off, but she was working nights. Finally, I got her to go to lunch with me. From there, our relationship grew. A few months later, in July, I put a ring on her finger. The following March, we were married.

Every now and then, I think about the years that have flown by and how we have changed. We have both gotten older, and hopefully a little wiser. Together, we have faced everything. I regret that I stopped doing the little things I did to win her heart at first (such as putting little Far Side cartoons on her windshield while she was at work). Sometimes I am not as patient as I should be, and take her for granted sometimes.

Marriage is hard. You have to have love to make it work. And I don’t mean mushy-dating-wear-my-letter-jacket love. I mean I’m-committed-to-stay-with-you-no-matter-what-the-cost love. That is what we have. Neither one of us is perfect, but we are both in it for the long haul. In the last couple of years, I have faced gut-wrenching changes in my job situation. During this time, God has been trying to show me something; I am still not sure of what. But I have been trying hard to listen.

Every time I get my hopes up that it will get better, and then those hopes are dashed, I take it hard. Lori is always right there, fighting for me, fighting with me, and reminding me that God is on the throne. I think God knew I would always be demanding answers. “Poor me,” I think sometimes. “Why is this happening to me?” For Lori, her faith is simple and strong. She has been facing challenges of her own, with searingly painful knees and ankles, it is hard for her to even walk sometimes. But she continues on, determined to be the wife, mother, friend and teacher God wants her to be. She doesn’t really know just how important she is to our little corner of the world, but I know three guys and a little blond dog who wouldn’t know what to do without her.

Yesterday, I got some bad news about a job, and this morning, I really didn’t want to get out of bed. But we need the money, so I got up and went to work. I was sitting at my desk at 8:23 a.m., feeling sorry for myself, when my phone chimed with a text. It was from Lori and said simply, “Psalm 46:1” (God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in times of trouble.) Following was this simple message: “I really love you. I don’t know what the plan is that God has for you, but I knew he hasn’t left you. And I won’t either.”

In Proverbs 31, Solomon — the wisest mortal ever known — writes about a noble wife. I have one of those, so here I am, praising her at the closest thing we have to a city gate. She is a better person than me. I am so blessed and thankful that a great God loves me so much that he planned for that little girl in pigtails to one day walk the aisle with me, and serve Him together for all the time we have together. I love you, sweet Lori, forever and ever.

Jason Case sets example at West Lincoln

Jason Case

Jason Case

There are many great men out there, men who quietly serve as examples to others. They don’t seek credit for themselves, and most of the time their names aren’t in the papers. But they draw people to them because they lift up the name of Christ and try to follow him. Jason Case is such a man.

I have known Jason all my life; I know his Mom and Dad (the gym at West Lincoln carries his dad’s name). His grandmother, Vivian, was my aunt and was one of the finest people I ever knew.

You see, Jason comes from a heritage of faith. Our shared ancestry includes many men and women of strong religious conviction. They include people like Zachariah Reeves, a legendary circuit-riding preacher who helped found many churches in South Mississippi during the early-to-mid 1800’s (many of which stand today). The torch of faith has been carried through our family for many generations; a powerful rock upon which to stand.

Of course, people make their own decisions about religious conviction; Jason chose many years ago to accept God’s gift of salvation through Christ. He carries a Bible and leads his family by example. It would be hard to find anybody who doesn’t think highly of him. He would never force his faith on anybody.

Today, Jason is the principal and cross-country coach at West Lincoln school in Lincoln County, the center of controversy over prayer in school. The American Civil Liberties Union has chosen, for whatever reason, to challenge the school because of prayer. This is just the latest occasion in which the ACLU has targeted Lincoln County Schools over religious practices.

I’ve been watching the media coverage of this controversy as this unfolds. It’s wrongheaded to stop religious expression in the public space because one person doesn’t agree. This is over-reaching and unnecessary. We live in a country which enshrines freedom of religion as one of our basic values. Some would argue that should include freedom from religion. They’re as entitled to their opinions as I am mine; this is America, after all. However, it should be clear that we dismantle our foundations of faith at our own peril.

Regardless of what happens, I know that Jason will do the right thing, and will follow his own conscience. I am glad that we have men like my cousin Jason out there, leading lives of quiet faith, and serving as examples of what a Christlike man looks like. We need more like him.

The Accompanist: Thoughts on Christian Motherhood

As submitted to the Baptist Record (Official Journal of the Mississippi Baptist Convention)

As a music minister’s child, I remember many a Saturday afternoon filled with the sounds of the hymns and specials which for the next day’s services. I remember Mom’s (Willa) patient accompaniment on the piano to Dad’s (Tom) gifted singing. The result on Sunday was nearly flawless! I have always thought it made great sense for the Lord to bring their gifts together to create a harmony that has lasted nearly 52 years. Though their years are advancing, their love and ministry are stronger than ever.

I have often thought about my Mom and her role in this ministry team. In church, or during programs, Mom will sit at her customary seat on the piano bench, quiet and dignified, while she waits to play her part. But being an accompanist is no “second-fiddle” job. Sure, you may not notice her when all the notes are right, but even the untrained musical ear will shudder if discordant notes are played. Being a Godly wife and mother is a lot like that. You may not even notice her in the background, but just let her leave her family to itself for even a day, and chaos will ensue!

The role of Mother is affirmed many times in Scripture. God informed Mary via the angelic messenger, “Blessed are you among women…” (Luke 1:42) and Jesus reaffirmed it from the cross when he made sure his beloved mother would be taken care of (John 19:26). In this time when the roles of women in society are at times under such fierce debate, Mom is out there every day quietly doing what she considers her calling – to obey God’s command to submit herself to her husband, as to the Lord (Ephesians 5:22). This is no assault on her dignity or social position; it’s an honor and a duty. I believe God laid it out this way to show us how to submit ourselves to God!

A teacher by profession, my Mom gave up her own income while my two brothers and I were little. Money was scarce then, but we never wanted for any necessities. It was a wonderful, happy home, full of love and prayers. Mom and Dad both modeled for us how to be Christian parents. Her greatest gift to me was her crucial role in helping guide me to the cross.

But I also remember how she was to me a pillar of strength despite being struck with life’s cruelest blow – the loss of a child. Her pain on that fateful September day, when an accident took my brother, created a deep wound in her soul. Although her heart was broken, she took to her tasks as wife and mother with grace and dignity. She looked hard for some kind of answer, some reason as to why it had to happen. But never once did I hear her disrespect God or question His Plan. Instead, she and my Dad learned to draw even closer to God, and today they help counsel other parents facing loss of a child. What a testimony to faithfulness!

On this Mother’s Day, we should all spend some time reflecting on just what our mothers mean (or has meant) to us. The sweet accompaniment of our lives by a woman who seeks God’s direction in her sacred task influences us more than we will ever know. If your life has included a Christlike mother, give a prayer of thanks to God, for He has blessed you beyond calculation. Thanks, Lord, for my Mom.

Tom and Willa: 55 Years and Counting!